Steph at TechnoBiblio wrote about an interesting observation at a recent panel discussion she attended:

The final panelist came forth with a statement that seemed to take the audience by surprise, but it really shouldn’t have… “Users don’t care.” They don’t care that the subject specific databases will bring back more relevant hits. They don’t care that Scholar brings back more duplicate hits and incomplete citation information. To quote the third panelist, “They want quick, they want cheap, they want easy.” That plain white box on the Scholar front page is all those. He brought it home when he said “As much as we want them to enjoy finding information, they don’t.” To us it’s fun, to them it isn’t and we need to get over it.

I agree that this shouldn’t be surprising. I know we often want to teach patrons how to find the information they are seeking, but much of the time they just want the answer to their query. Maybe it’s short-sighted of them not to learn to do a complete search themselves, but it’s really not our place to tell them that. They may eventually realize that it would be better for them to learn how to find information, but our telling them about how to choose quality sources and where to find good full-text articles is not what’s going to do it. We must work from where our patrons is, and each patron will have different needs, priorities, and tolerances. Some patrons may be interested in the actual search, but most of them won’t. Most patrons rarely ask anything of a librarian, and when they do, we shouldn’t alienate them by lecturing them about search techniques. We should just give them what they want.

I love the search, I love the chase. But most people come to a librarian looking for the answer to a question or to find articles on a certain subject, and they’d be pretty annoyed if the librarian set them down and tried to show them how to find what they were looking for.

On the other hand, when you have a patron who is interested in learning how to find the information, don’t just point them towards the section where the books they’re looking for are or tell them the name of the database you’d use. This is an opportunity to instruct, to show them cool search techniques and technologies, and to help them become self-sufficient information seekers. The key is to treat each patron as an individual and listen to what they’re really asking for.